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Going for broke

How Twitter under Elon Musk makes plain the limits of luck

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May 30, 2023

“Move fast and break things” has long been Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra. But the Meta founder seems plodding and cautious compared with Elon Musk and his tumultuous tenure at the helm of Twitter. 

Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, and within weeks he had fired half of the company’s permanent staff and 80 percent of its contractors. The new working conditions he established would drive away even more employees, with the result that Twitter is reportedly now down to around 1,000 staff, compared with 8,000 when he took over. Among the demands Musk has made of employees since taking over the company: requiring them to fly transatlantic to the company’s San Francisco offices with no notice and telling them to print out physical copies of their computer code—then asking them to shred the printouts.

It’s a proxy battle in the wider war between owners and labor.…It’s also a tussle between two competing visions of Silicon Valley leadership.

The story of Elon Musk’s Twitter in many ways reflects broader shifts going on in the workforce and world at large. It’s a proxy battle in the wider war between owners and labor, which has included unionization drives in big tech companies and walkouts at some of the world’s richest organizations. 

It’s also a tussle between two competing visions of Silicon Valley leadership. The first lionizes the grind and hustle of startup culture, with its long work weeks and lack of employee protections in exchange for the privilege of working for a fast-growing company under a genius founder. The other prioritizes a harmonious work-life balance, generous leave policies for parents, and at least pays lip service to issues of diversity and equity.

And this battle is being fought out in public, for all to see, through drip-drip leaks and tick-tock reportage starring Twitter’s longest-running main character: Elon Musk.

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It’s worth remembering that Twitter was not exactly a well-run company before Musk arrived, according to conversations with former employees. Under Jack Dorsey—who, like Musk, ran a second company alongside Twitter, the payments company Block—staff frequently felt ignored. For them, Dorsey’s vision for Twitter was esoteric and often detached from the reality on the ground. Meanwhile, the company struggled to make money. Projects would get bogged down, and managers struggled to gain the attention of executives. “Yes, we could have done things differently and better. I could have done things differently. I think about that a lot,” former Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, Musk’s immediate predecessor, told employees in April 2022.

In the run-up to Musk’s takeover, for instance, a pay-transparency dashboard was published on the company’s intranet as part of a transparency drive, resulting in some staff learning they were being paid less than half of what colleagues with the same job title, doing the same work, were making elsewhere in the world. “I liked my job,” one staff member said in the late summer of 2022, as Musk’s shadow loomed over the company. “Nothing would keep me here now—even if they returned to exactly what they were.” This staff member subsequently left, let go in Musk’s first rounds of layoffs.

Despite Twitter’s failings before Musk arrived, morale was significantly higher than it is now. For many, the company’s generous benefits, which included supporting employees through IVF treatments, outweighed the drawbacks. Employees were forgiving of management’s shortcomings because their work-life balance was good.

“We’re all looking for some degree of safety and comfort in our lives,” says Andrew Brodsky, an assistant professor at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in management analysis. “When you’re managing employees, it’s important to make people feel like they’re safe, and they’ve got a good job.” When a person’s job is threatened, it has an enormous impact on their well-being, which subsequently affects their job performance. People’s lives are intrinsically tied up in their livelihoods.

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In April 2022, Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter for a premium in what turned out to be a $44 billion deal. At the time, Twitter spokesperson Adrian Zamora, who would eventually be fired by Musk, reassured the world: “Our policy decisions are not determined by the board or shareholders, and we have no plans to reverse any policy decisions.”

After a series of contradictory moves, which included Musk trying to pull out of the deal entirely, the South African billionaire marked his purchase by walking into Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters with a sink in tow—a belabored joke about letting an idea “sink in” that most people did not find funny. 

The majority of the company’s employees were similarly unamused. Morale during the lead-up to Musk’s takeover was low, according to those working at Twitter at the time. “Twitter is a shit show internally; I can confirm that for you right now, without a doubt,” one staff member told me in July 2022. “I expect it is going to be a mess,” a second said. (These sources, who are no longer at the company, spoke to me anonymously while they were still employed by Twitter; they remain anonymous now as severance packages are in dispute.) More than 500 Twitter workers left in the 90 days prior to the purchase. Days before Musk took over, staff could be found crying in the bathrooms at a company Halloween party.

Not everyone was unhappy, though. Some bought into Musk’s image as a tech-bro genius. As reported by The Verge and New York Magazine, Luke Simon, a senior engineering manager, was among those who were optimistic about the change, saying that he thought Musk would bring the Midas touch to the long-stalled company. 

Others were skeptical. In Slack, a product manager replied to Simon’s claim, writing, “As a childhood Greek mythology nerd, I feel it is important to point out that [the] story behind the idea of the Midas touch is not a positive one. It’s a cautionary tale about what is lost when you only focus on wealth.” Simon himself would be culled about two months into Musk’s tenure.

Silence defined the days after Musk took charge. “As you’ve probably heard, no one hears anything,” Matt DeMichiel, a senior research analyst at Twitter, said in a Twitter Space shortly after the takeover. “To get the slightest sense that people understand there are humans on the other end of these decisions would be a small step in the right direction.” Around half of Twitter's employees learned how company communication would work under Musk's leadership when, on November 3, 2022, they were caught up in the first round of layoffs. They found out they’d been fired when they were locked out of their company laptops—no one had told them beforehand.

No one had told the remaining employees about the layoffs, either. One Twitter engineer who survived the first cull said at the time, “Everyone was trying to pick up the pieces and pull together all the information they had on who was where, and trying to make sure on-call rotations were staffed.” They quickly found that the cuts were so extensive that it was impossible to put the pieces back together. In November 2022, as the app’s notifications began to malfunction, one Twitter engineer told me they didn’t know what had gone wrong because the people who would know had left the company. That engineer, too, has since been fired.

Musk sent out his first official email to employees two weeks after his takeover and five days after the first round of layoffs. As a motivational message, it was a failure. “The road ahead is arduous and will require intense work to succeed,” Musk wrote. He then withdrew permission to work remotely and required staff to be in the office for a minimum of 40 hours a week. In May 2023, Musk told CNBC that remote work was “morally wrong” and that the “laptop classes living in la-la land” should get off “their moral high horse work-from-home bullshit.”

“This is an example of really poor communication and leadership,” says Brodsky.

Musk’s email went over like a fart in church. “I can’t tell if it’s intentional, or his ego is just so big that it blots out all sense,” one employee told me at the time. Another said that the email further demoralized an already worn-out workforce. “He’s burning the place down,” another employee said. 

Around the same time, a product manager named Esther Crawford became a symbol of both Musk’s extreme demands and the impossibility of meeting them. It began in November 2022, when she retweeted a picture of herself dozing in a sleeping bag on the floor of her office. “When your team is pushing round the clock to make deadlines sometimes you #SleepWhereYouWork,” Crawford wrote, co-opting a hashtag that Twitter employees had long used in posts about their employer, #LoveWhereYouWork. (As Musk scythed through the company’s staff seemingly indiscriminately, a variant on the hashtag, #LoveWhereYouWorked, became a poignant meeting point for those who wanted to reminisce about “old Twitter.”) Within weeks of this display of dedication, Crawford was promoted to head of Twitter Blue, Musk’s ill-fated bid to generate subscription revenue. By March, she was out.

According to those still at Twitter, it has been clear from the beginning that Musk’s plan has been to gut the company and rebuild it in his own image. As part of this change, he’s brought in employees from Tesla and SpaceX. The inclusion of staff from Musk’s other companies—plus the simple fact that Musk himself is juggling multiple jobs—has a detrimental effect on staff well-being, Brodsky argues. “It has a little bit of irony in it,” Brodsky says. “He made all Twitter employees come back to the office as an argument that people aren’t working as hard at home on their one job, but he’s got two jobs himself.”

Equally dispiriting has been the unfulfilled promise of three months’ severance for staff hit by the layoffs, which so far has not materialized for at least some former employees—and is now the subject of a number of lawsuits. That, combined with Musk’s refusal to pay office rental bills worldwide and insistence on renegotiating agreements with suppliers, underscores that Musk’s “move fast and break things” ethos doesn’t care if someone else goes broke.

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The image of the inscrutable, often difficult tech founder has captured the imagination of Silicon Valley—and the rest of the world—for the better part of two decades. As the tech industry rode high, its leaders became models to follow. But as Musk has cratered the value of his personal wealth of his companies in an unusually public—and dramatic—arc, he has punctured the myth of the omniscient tech genius.

The image of the inscrutable, often difficult tech founder has captured the imagination of Silicon Valley—and the rest of the world—for the better part of two decades.

The share price of Tesla, Musk’s publicly traded electric-vehicle company, has dropped 62 percent since last year as investors worry that Musk is distracted by the mess he’s made of Twitter. Five hundred of Twitter’s top advertisers have paused their spending on the platform, causing the company’s ad revenue to drop by 40 percent, year on year.

Nonetheless, Musk’s model is one that other companies have sometimes followed. Since 2022, the tech sector as a whole has faced layoffs not seen for more than a decade. Twitter isn’t alone: Amazon, Salesforce, Meta, and Microsoft have all laid off workers in recent months. More than 1,000 companies fired more than 150,000 staff in 2022, according to the tech-industry tracker layoffs.fyi. Between January and May 2023, 197,985 staff were let go from more than 2,600 companies—nearly 1,350 a day.

“In order to have meaningful change, you often need to disrupt the normal flow of a company,” says Brodsky. “[Musk] came in and tore everything apart. It may be completely necessary for change, but, in the process of tearing everything apart and starting anew, you may be losing important parts of the business—whether that’s employees who have knowledge or abilities, or an existing culture that helps motivate people.”

Whether Musk’s handpicked replacement for Twitter CEO, former NBC Universal executive Linda Yaccarino, can turn things around is uncertain. She might quell the disquiet among Twitter’s advertisers, who abandoned ship under Musk’s control, but it’s also likely that she’ll still be answerable to Musk, limiting her ability to improve morale.

The situation at the company wasn’t helped by the catastrophic failure of Twitter Spaces as Ron DeSantis attempted to use the platform to announce his run for the U.S. presidency in May 2023. The audio feature, which was not tested for scale before the DeSantis event, quickly collapsed under the weight of a few hundred thousand people trying to listen in. The crash was emblematic of the precarity with which Twitter is now run, said some former staff members. “I don’t think he’s got enough cloud engineers to handle this,” says Melissa Ingle, who was a senior data scientist at Twitter until she was fired by Musk.

“There’s high degree of luck involved” with being a great CEO, says Brodsky. “There are lots of incredibly intelligent, high-ability founders and CEOs who things just don’t pan out for. The organization was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“[Even] if you win the lottery once, eventually you’re going to lose,” says Brodsky. “Then it becomes visible that luck is playing a key part” in your success. 

Musk has undeniably had a winning streak—from PayPal to Tesla to SpaceX. But after a tenure as Twitter CEO that was marked by hubris and failure, Musk’s luck might be the thing that’s now broken.

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